Arts Desk

Choral Christmas Smackdown! The Washington Chorus vs. Choral Arts Society

Much like retail businesses, choral groups have a standard yearly schedule. They live a meager, hand-to-mouth existence 11 months of the year, but December is when they cash in. For the second in our annual series of holiday smackdowns!, Arts Desk offers a consumer report on Christmas concerts from two of our leading choral groups: The Washington Chorus’s A Candlelight Christmas and Choral Arts Society’s Holiday Cheer from Russia, currently at the Kennedy Center and Strathmore.

DIRECTOR: In terms of animal magnetism, 41-year-old TWC director Julian Wachner has a slight advantage over 75-year-old CAS director Norman Scribner. Not that Scribner is without his own allure; his awkward conducting style—knees bent, hips wildly gyrating—can be vaguely erotic. Wachner’s proven himself willing to be risqué, throwing a sex scene into his last composed choral work, Come My Dark Eyed One. So it wasn’t surprising that the evening started out with some inappropriate touching: Wachner instructed the audience to stand up and give each other backrubs. This is all part of his hammy routine, which he uses to great effect to elicit audience participation in the sing-a-longs. (Yes, there are sing-a-longs. You’ve been warned.) But while Wachner is cheerfully dictatorial, Scribner is just dictatorial, demanding the audience sing “Silent Night”—in Russian!—and then do it twice more so that soloist Irina Shishkova can correct their pronunciation. Point: TWC

PROGRAM: The Washington Chorus adheres to a standard pops formula. Wachner put together a good mix of fast and slow, familiar and obscure carols, and he spaced out the singalongs. The Choral Arts Society is more hamstrung in its selection. Each year CAS highlights music from a different country. This year it’s Russia’s more Christmasy? Because it’s cold? Whatever the reasoning, this leaves the program with a lot of minor-key dirges that are a lot less merry than, say, “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and the more upbeat carols, thrown in at random, feel disjointed. Point: TWC

CHORUS: Both choruses are all-volunteer, and they’re both quite good. But the Choral Arts Society sings with their noses buried in their songbooks, whereas the Washington Chorus makes more of an effort to make eye contact. It’s little things like this that make all the difference in keeping an audience engaged—particularly one made up of children in itchy sweaters who don’t want to be there. TWC is also joined by two choral groups from area high schools. Saturday’s Langley Madrigals handled their unfortunately named French carols (“Here, Mid the Ass and Oxen Mild” and “Touro-Louro-Louro!”) with remarkable grace, despite looking like extras from Robin Hood: Men in Tights. I’m guessing those puffy shirts don’t make them the coolest kids at Langley High, much as they deserve to be. Point: TWC

ORCHESTRA: CAS is accompanied by the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra (Sverdlovsk’s finest), which flew in for its first U.S. performance. They’re not the most famous symphonic group in Russia but they sound nice and boisterous, and play a rollicking Tchaikovsky’s “Jester’s Dance.” TWC is accompanied by a brass ensemble made up of players from the National Symphony Orchestra’s horn section—which, if you were to pick any NSO section to feature, wouldn’t normally be in your top 10. Point: CAS

SOLOIST: TWC’s featured soloist, tenor Carl Tanner, is a bonafide opera star, and strikes all the diva poses to prove it: eyes closed, hands outstretched, nose pointed skyward. He does a soulful “Mary Had a Baby,” although “O Holy Night,” one of the prettiest Christmas songs, in my opinion sounds better with a female vocalist. But after only two short pieces, he’s gone. At least CAS’s soloist, mezzo-soprano Irina Shishkova, sticks around for four, including a beautiful “Ave Maria” in which she out-projects the entire chorus put together. Point: CAS

BONUS POINT: TWC for handing out candy canes after the concert

Overall, the Washington Chorus puts on the more spirited holiday program, and one with broader family appeal. You could see it in their respective opening-night audiences: The Washington Chorus had a lot more kids, whereas the Choral Arts Society had a lot more congressmen (or, at least, white guys with silver hair and little American flag lapel pins who look like congressmen). Choral Arts’ version of Christmas is more majestic but also a bit bloodless. Both get points off for forcing audiences to sing that plague canticle, Handel’s Messiah. But a couple in the front row at TWC’s Saturday concert got engaged in the middle of it, providing a bit of relief.

WINNER: The Washington Chorus

The Washington Chorus’s A Candlelight Christmas continues Tuesday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. and Thursday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, and Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Strathmore. The Choral Arts Society’s Holiday Treasures from Russia continues Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 7 pm and Saturday, Dec. 24 at 1 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. Saturday's concert includes an additional performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. All concerts $15 – $65.

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  • Gilbert Adams

    How stupid and sick is this newspaper, that Christmas concerts by two local choruses are compared in a "smackdown"? And on such puerile considerations? If you can't appreciate these concerts for what they are, devote your "reality TV" mentality to something on your own low level.

  • Howard Spendelow

    Up front, I write as a member of the Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW). As such, I found all of your reviewer's criticisms fair, but in several cases misplaced/misinformed. In the spirit of what The New Yorker used to call the "Department of Amplification", let me offer some alternative (and, I think, corrective) perspectives.

    Moving in order through the review, my first comment is a minor one: Mezzo Irina Shishkova sang a demo verse of Silent Night in Russian, but the phonetic criticism came from Anton Fedyashin, of American University's Institute of Russian Culture, who was brought on-board explicitly as language-tutor to the audience. This is a long-standing tradition @ CASW Christmas concerts, that we sing a verse of "Silent Night" in the host-country's language; back in 2004, I was the Chinese language coach for 平安夜 when Singapore was our sponsor.

    "Hamstrung" by our association with Russia? This misses the point. Every year CASW does a Christmas Gala sponsored by some embassy. It's our major fund-raiser of the year. TWC does a similar event (next on 12 April 2012) for fund-raising, but they don't connect it with their Christmas concert. So, the comparison is a bit unbalanced.

    "Minor-key dirges"?—I think everything we did was in a major key, but the reviewer may be referring to one of our more sombre pieces, the "Bogoroditse Deva" ["God-birthing Virgin"] from Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil (a.k.a. "Vespers"). It was one of several settings we performed of the Annunciation, and so was completely appropriate for a Christmas program. Not to mention that this is a gem of 20th century choral music, all the more frequently performed as a glorious a cappella piece when choruses are less able to hire orchestral support.

    Audience? The reviewer says: "The Washington Chorus had a lot more kids, whereas the Choral Arts Society had a lot more congressmen". True, but irrelevant. CASW had filled the Concert Hall for a kiddy-oriented Family Concert on Sat 17 Dec, while our 19 Dec opening was the curtain-raiser for our Gala, so yes, those were in fact congresspersons, diplomats, and industry leaders in the audience. It's their support that lets us do the Family Concert two days earlier. Plus our annual MLK concert and the rest of our "regular" repertoire. We're OK with this balance.

    "Plague canticle Messiah" [actually, only the "Hallelujah Chorus"]? That's a bit harsh. OK, it is indeed a warhorse, but so what? CASW has not performed it in decades, but inasmuch as CASW was formed back in 1965, at NSO request, to pull together a chorus for "Messiah", it's entirely appropriate that Norman Scribner end his 46-year foundational association with CASW with this reprise. From my perspective in the "chorister seats" above the stage, it was heart-warming to see so many in the audience singing along, from the memories they brought to our gathering. A society that sings together is a resilient, surviving, society.

    I take seriously the critique that "Choral Arts Society sings with their noses buried in their songbooks". It's all too true. Hearing that, we should hang our heads in shame, but then, that would only compound the problem. Rather, we should follow Norman's advice: connecting with the audience is paramount, coming in on the right beat is crucial, and after that, pitches and volume are desirable...

    Bottom line: we understand why journalists might try to spike interest by touting a Smackdown! . But, the bottom line is that we're all blessed to live in a city which has so many choral opportunities, for both singers & citizen-listeners alike.

  • Howard Spendelow

    OK, one more comment about this wonderful orchestra. They're from Ekaterinburg, a city named after Peter I ("The Great")'s wife in 1763. It was renamed Sverdlovsk in 1924 after a Bolshevik leader, then returned to its original name in 1991, after the collapse of the Communist government. It's the city where Tsar Nikolai II and his family were incarcerated, and then assassinated, in 1918. The US maintains a consulate there. Hard to find any analogy with an American city; we cover only four time-zones, but Russia covers eleven...

  • Susan Manola

    WOW!! Just what Washington needs!!! Another "SMACKDOWN." Don't we have enough if that up on the Hill? NOW we have to drop it on CHRISTMAS as well? Too bad your article didn't focus on the fact that Washington, DC, by statistics, is THE CHORAL CAPITAL of our country? That we can boast of four major symphonic choirs and so many other fine smaller ensembles that anyone in this area who wants to sing truly can find a choral home. When it comes to concerts, all of these groups have their own style, their own following, those things that make them truly unique...including The Choral Arts Society and The Washington Chorus. Just once, I wish a reviewer would take the time to, as the late Leonard Bernstein advised, "do your homework" before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Why Russia? "Because it's COLD??" Do your homework. As Dr. Spendelow stated, Choral Arts always has a "sponsored" Christmas Concert as a part of their Gala Fundraiser, a fundraiser that helps sponsor our Family Concert, our music progams at THEARC, Martin Luther King Programs for adults and children - often featuring school choirs as well. The vast majority of Choral Arts singers just finished singing a concert for families with young children on the 17th - do your homework. That was an entirely DIFFERENT 75-minute program learned and performed, while ALSO rehearsing the program you just "smacked." But "why Russia?" Once more, please do your homework. At the behest of former National Symphony Orchestra Music Director, the late Mstislav Rostropovich, Choral Arts traveled with "Slava" to his home, Russia, so (in his own words) "my two families can meet each other." If there has ever been a magical musical tour, Sir, this one was! Why, in Norman Scribner's HERITAGE year would we not want to once more remember that special time with our new Russian friends, the magnificent Ural Philharmonic? Once more to sing the "Bogoroditse Devo" to remember the man who reintroduced VESPERS to the world? Our audiences have FUN singing in multiple languages...they always ask what language the will be learning each year!! Didn't YOU hear their laughter? THEY were enjoying themselves. Dirges? "Jauchzet, Frohlocket" is a DIRGE? "The Holly and the Ivy? "In Dulci Jubilo? Dirges??? Really? I consider myself very fortunate to been allowed the privilege of performing Christmas music with The National Symphony Orchestra, The Choral Arts Society of Washington, The Cathedral Choral Society, The Washington Bach Consort AND The Washington Chorus. The fact that ALL of the concerts were different and exciting simply made my Yuletide even more jubilant. Many of us also sing with several choral groups. Point-blank, none of us need any "smacking." We are too busy rehearsing, getting ready to give those who come to LISTEN the joy of the season...the joy that only music can bring. You might want to think about that the next time you come to a concert. Come to LISTEN, and to ENJOY!!

  • Roberta Samuelson

    The DC area is blessed to have an abundance of top-tier choruses. I agree with other posters that a "smackdown" isn't very useful when it comes to the performing arts, but I understand why the writer did it as it makes for good copy. You can't go wrong going to concerts of either chorus, and not just at Christmas. Local legends like Norman Scribner have paved the way for rising stars like Julian Wachner, and all the choruses in the area are better for it. It's all about celebrating the beauty of music and the joy of singing, not snarking, after all.

  • M. Paarlberg

    Thanks Mr. Spendelow for the clarifications. A few of my own:

    At Monday's opening, Mr. Fedyashin was indeed brought on stage to correct the audience, but when invited to do so by Scribner, he declined; it was soloist Shishkova who corrected our Russian.

    "Hamstrung" refers to the options for familiar, sing-a-long carols available for a country-specific theme concert. The respective programs are to some extent apples and oranges, and Choral Arts' Family Christmas Concert on the 17th may be a more apt comparison. However it's City Paper policy to focus on multi-night concerts for review, in order to draw attention to upcoming performances.

    "Plague canticle," it should go without saying, is my own personal opinion on that scourge of holiday music, Handel's Messiah - one which I am sadly aware puts me in the minority.

    I have noted DC's status as choral capital of the US before, including last year's Messiah Smackdown! Proud as we are of this designation, I don't feel it's necessary to mention it in every choral review.

    Finally, I quite enjoyed both concerts, and sang along with everyone for all the carols (well...except for "Hallelujah"). I believe my appreciation of both groups, for different reasons, should be apparent even to those who don't like jokes.